Straining forward to the year ahead

How do you review your year?

 We begin 2012 with a sense of straining forward: what will this New Year hold for us?  There is a sense of new beginnings. But in order to go forward we also look back. My personal evaluation of the past year is probably different to yours: I tend to ask questions such as: What did I read? What did I publish?  What did I teach? Where did I go? Who has been added to the family?  Let’s start there.

 What did I read?

Reading is both a pleasure and an occupational necessity!  Under the topic of “reading for pleasure/personal edification” I would recommend: Two excellent Tim Keller books: his commentary on Mark’s Gospel “King’s Cross” and “The Meaning of Marriage” (Tim Keller’s excellent article on the dangers of ministry is also well worth reading); “Subversive Obedience” by Walter Brueggemann for good observations on OT text; “The Cross and the Prodigal” by Kenneth Bailey for his amazing insight on reading the Gospels with a Palestinian mindset; “Think” by John Piper, which, er, encouraged me to think and “John Stott” by Chris Wright (Ed) as a great overview of a godly, humane and simply Christ-like man .  I don’t read much fiction (other than student essays – juuuuust kidding J).  I have enjoyed “A Prayer for Owen Meaney” by John Irving, very perceptive observations on humankind with some penetrating questions about the meaning of life.


 What did I publish?

My book Excellence in Preaching. Learning from the Best  was published by IVP (UK) in September 2011 (due out January 2012 in USA).  Comments have been mainly positive with remarks on how helpful it can be to look at exactly what it is that preachers do when they preach and how we might do it better.  Criticisms have surrounding the selection of preachers and some anxieties over whether they also raise the bar too high (one person has asked for a second volume Learning from Mediocrity, and I take their point!).  I have done various interviews including and


 I am hoping to write something of the ever present reality of Stress! later in the year and maybe take some of the lessons to heart!

 What did I teach?

My teaching is mainly in the area of homiletics (the “art” of preaching) and hermeneutics (biblical interpretation, the word is taken from the Greek god hermes whose role was to communicate the mind of the gods to the people).  I also look after the Focus Days at Wycliffe Hall which are the most integrative parts of the curriculum, combining academic learning with practical ministry skills as well as addressing personal and spiritual issues for the students.

 Where did I go?

It was a great privilege to take a small group of students to Tanzanian March (more on this at  As is quite typical in Africa we ended up doing things we had not exactly planned.  The result was a very challenging and stimulating visit to a Maasai tribe where we were asked to do “door-to-door” evangelism and train them in how they should do it.  Leaving aside the obvious problem of the lack of doors in their primitive accommodation (!), we wrestled with the cross-cultural implications of what we were being asked to do. In the end we taught them the brief evangelistic outline “Two Ways to Live”, we helped them commit to memory the bible verses and did some in-depth bible teaching in each of those passages.  My initial challenge to the students was “Prepare hard but be prepared to do anything, including that for which you are not prepared.” This turned out to be good advice!

 In August I spent a week in Singapore teaching at Adam Road Presbyterian Church.  It was a privilege to be asked to do bible expositions and also to do some training in the area of preaching.  They worked me hard but they also had a great appetite to learn!  The Pastor took me on a fascinating tour which culminated in a Japanese meal and a visit to a Buddhist temple. The discipline of the Monks in praying round the clock was challenging, but the lack of assurance of any answers to their prayers was not!  This was followed by a week in Sydney Australia visiting Churches, Colleges and friends.

 Who has been added to the family?

On September 10th Naomi married Jonny Dennis at St Andrew’s Church in North Oxford.  It was a great day and a lovely chance to catch up with family and friends.  As well as being a Grandfather I am also seeking to come to terms with being a Father-in-law J.

 These are very “me” centred questions, and for those of you who follow this blog but don’t know me personally the detail may be of little interest. But I have also been challenged by another set of questions which I have been asking myself.  When it comes to reviewing 2011 and looking forward to 2012, I think I should ask:-

 What did I learn and in which areas did I grow?

I haven’t written the book on Stress yet but the reactions I get from people when I tell them that this is my next project are enough to make me realise that this is an important area for Christians to tackle.  Stress is not all bad.  After all, one of the highest achievers and most ambitious of men was the Apostle Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:27).

 One key realisation for me this year is: I should do less and but I should do it better.  In fact, to take this one stage further: I should learn less but learn it deeper. This lesson has partly arisen out of research in teaching and learning in higher education (and completing the PGDipLATHE in Oxford University). More particularly though: being mastered by convictions that flow from the truth of God; being a man of THE book; loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength and keeping the main things the main things in my thought-life and daily devotion, are all important.  How much of my energy in 2011 was wasted in superficial or trivial things? And how much of my time is stretched across a wide range of interests, pleasure, contacts and relationships?  Yes, this makes for a sociable, entertaining, connected world.  But I have concluded that if it stops me going deeper (rather than wider) then I have lost balance and focus in my Christian life.  That causes stress. So: I must not write lessons which I have not learnt deeply myself!

 Who did I disciple?

I should keep a smaller circle of friends.  I can’t possibly keep contact with, let alone help bring to maturity, the 700+ facebook friends I’m associated with.  “Liking” them, “poking” them, “friending” them is not enough!  Actually, I love the wider contacts which facebook and other social media brings.  To be in some kind of relationship with a broad cross section of people is a privilege.  But: I need to invest more time in a smaller group of people so that together we might grow in Christ-likeness.  Intimacy and community are at the heart of Christian “being”. Am I in an accountable Christian relationship with others? And am I growing with and through them?  Have the many circles of relationships I have found myself in during 2011 resulted in me – or anyone else – growing in their relationship with God?

 How much did I suffer?

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:1-11).

 Paul spoke about his desire to know Christ better.  My favourite verse, also in Philippians, is “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Both these verses indicate that suffering is normal Christian living and the means that God most seems to use for Christians to grow in their faith.  I don’t think that I am alone in finding it hard to see suffering in this positive light.  But in reviewing the past year it is in times when I have not “got it all together”, and times when I am “not the most popular” or “got my own way” and the times when life is not all “plain sailing” that God is actually doing his most significant work in my life.  I need to revaluate 2011 with this heavenly check list!

 It is good to look back and reflect.  But it’s hard to measure progress. Who can see themselves grow? Perhaps we are not supposed to try to do so.  As we go into 2012 I want to echo Paul’s ambitions:

… one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14).

 As John Piper has put it: I look back to say “thank-you” but I look forward with “faith in future grace”, i.e., with an expectancy that God will supply grace for the future as I step forward in faith.  So, onwards into 2012!


One thought on “Straining forward to the year ahead

  1. Anita @ Dreaming Beneath the Spires February 17, 2012 / 5:50 pm

    I’ve just discovered your blog, Simon. I would say you have had a deep, and deeply meaningful year (as well as an exciting one!). I love your reflections about living deeply, mindfully and in a more Word and Christ centred way.


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